Essay: On 'Real' Books

Oct 19, 2016

If you’ve ever taken a child to the library or the bookstore, you know that sometimes there’s a little friction between what they want to read, and what you’d like them to read.  “Captain Underpants” versus “Stuart Little.”  “Calvin and Hobbes” versus “A Wrinkle In Time.”  Lake Effect essayist Christianna Fritz urges you not to fall into that false dichotomy:

I work in a bookstore, and specialize in the children’s department. The fun part is recommending novels, picture books, activity books, really anything to get kids engaged with the world within and around them. But there are times when customers want to browse on their own, but I’m still nearby and can’t avoid overhearing conversations between parents or guardians and their children.  It surprises me how often I hear an adult telling a child to put a graphic novel back where they found it, and more often than not, it’s followed up with, “You need to find a real book.”

Now, I’m not bringing this up to argue for the legitimacy of graphic novels. Many teachers and parents will defend the benefits of young readers, especially reluctant ones, reading graphic novels to improve vocabulary, critical thinking skills, and awareness of narrative.

My concern isn’t about the books, my concern is what adults are communicating to children when they say “find a real book.” Yes, the adult may mean well, something along the lines of: you need to challenge yourself, I want you to read something that will make you think, you need to learn and grow. But that isn’t always what the child hears. They hear, “What you enjoy reading isn’t valid. It’s not real. This isn’t worth your time.”

The adult is also suggesting that knowledge is only valid if it’s packaged in a conventional way. “Find a real book” says that a real book is well…whatever that particular parent considers to be a real book, but tends to mean a book with smaller print, more pages, and with few to no pictures. Often, the child doesn’t know how to defend their graphic novel, and will respond with, “But I want to read this one” or “I don’t know what else to pick.”  If the reader already has a hard time finding something they enjoy, this may shut down their desire to search for another book. A kid, just like everyone else, recognizes when they enjoy something—it made them turn the next page, it made them start doodling pictures of the characters, it made them excited to read the next one in the series. But, what they love about one book, they may not know how to find in the hundreds of other books, spine-out, in a bookstore or library. For some kids, the challenge of finding a “real” book may cause them to read less or avoid reading altogether.

Saying “find a real book” is also a hands-off approach. The child is being given a task without the tools to complete it. Instead, do some investigating. Ask questions. What was it they liked about the book? Did they like that the characters told jokes or that the story took place on a space station? Use their answers as a jumping off point to track down a similar title. And if you’re still stuck, publishers like Scholastic and organizations like the American Library Association have resources and book lists that can offer more ideas. Or, you can always ask the bookseller a few feet away for a recommendation.